The capital of Iceland is your sophisticated gateway to all the ethereal fjords, glaciers, geothermal water, volcanos, Icelandic horses, whales, nature, and elves that you can handle. Once considered a stopover city for an inexpensive gateway to Europe, Reykjavik is now a thriving hipster and expat hub.
Replete with quirky art and museums, high-end yet hygge fashion and Michelin star restaurants, and hot springs, the land of both the midnight sun and Northern Lights has a special kind of magic and friendly, happy, artsy people. Bjork still lives here, and Sigur Rós, too. Reykjavik merits at least two days, which will give you just enough to start working on that digital nomad visa to the land of fire and ice.
The entire city is walkable. Consider staying downtown where most of the action is. A medium priced hotel is the Grandi by Center Hotels in the creative quarter. The stylish yet practical industrial stay has an accompanying bar and restaurant where you can make friends, and with its vibe of an upscale hostel, it nails the coziness factor.
Start with a tour from the knowledgeable and charming guides at CityWalk Reykjavik to understand the history and orient yourself to downtown Reykjavik. Our guide informed us that Iceland is a country with no indigenous population, and the second to last to be settled on Earth. Instead, Viking settlers from Norway came for a land of opportunity in the 800s. “Lucky” Leif Erickson discovered North America half a millennium before Columbus after being expelled from Iceland; you can find a statue of him downtown in front of the iconic Hallgrímskirkja.
The culture is mostly Norwegian. While originally Catholic under the Danish crown, they switched to Lutheranism with the Icelandic Reformation in 1550. Besides the standard faiths, Ásatrúarfélagið—a kind of heathenry from the 1970s—and Zuism, a modern Sumerian religion founded in the 2010s, are practiced among the 123,000 residents in Reyjavik and 366,000 residents nation-wide.
The tour ends in front of the Hallgrímskirkja Church, the largest church in the nation, visible from almost any point in the city and shaped like a mountain with jagged lava-like edges. $11 takes you to the bell-tower for the awesome panoramic views of the city and the Snaefellsjokull glacier-capped volcano on a clear day. This landmark leads to the insta-worthy famous Rainbow Road on Skolavordustigur Street that was painted for Pride month, but is now a tourist photo staple.
Across the street is the culty Café Loki, a great spot for lunch, simple and cozy with reasonable prices. It only serves native cuisine like kleina (Icelandic donut), traditional meat soups, “plokkfiskur,” fish stew filled with potatoes and onions, homemade rye bread, and rye bread flavored ice cream.
ROK Restaurant nearby is pleasantly posh, and serves high quality food and beautiful cocktails in a relaxed environment inspired by nature. If you really want to splurge for dinner, try the only Michelin starred restaurant in Iceland, Dill , with upscale, artfully designed New Nordic foraged and local cuisine, or one of four Michelin Plate winners—ÓX, Matur og Drykkur, Sümac and Moss.
Now you can shop. Stop in the famous 66°North, the Icelandic brand who outfits the nation for chic yet practical weather gear. Maybe buy a lopapeysa, or patterned wool sweater. The Handknitting Association of Iceland – Handprjónasamband Íslands svf sells knits starting at around $300. There are many “made in Iceland” shops where you can find actual lava home décor and felt soap, and several bookstores worth checking out. There is also an H & M and Cos for affordable clothing, and Skolavordustigur is home to a variety of bars and restaurants if you’re looking for a quick meal.
Stroll past colorful residential fishing homes and the old harbor where you can easily catch a boat tour in Faxaflói Bbay the next morning for whale watching or to see puffins. You can even take a quick jaunt to the more rural Viðey Island where Yoko Ono designed the Peace Tower as a tribute to John Lennon.
The Reykjavík City Card, a one or two-day city pass for around $30-$60, covers most of these attractions and is well worth it for access to the many museums downtown and all of the fabulous public geo-thermal pools. It also provides free unlimited travel by bus in town and some discounts on tours, in shops, and on services. The infamous highly scientific Penis Museum downtown is unfortunately one exception to the discount.
Located by the old harbor between the Reykjavík city center and the North Atlantic, the Harpa Concert Hall and Conference Centre is another major landmark, a Modern glass honeycombed concert hall and conference center, home to the national opera and symphony. Walk through just to marvel at the mirrored beauty. And from Harpa it’s a short walk to the Sun Voyager sculpture, a stunning outdoor exhibit resembling a Viking ship.
Off downtown but just a 15 minute walk, Reykjavík’s historic harbor area has more peaceful open spaces. Tucked inside old boat repair shops are now high-fashion boutiques like Farmer’s Market. Stop at the famous neon-colored Nom-Nom chocolate bar factory where you can get a beautifully designed handmade bar as in the States, only here at the flagship, they serve ice cream. Originally built as a herring factory, Marshallhusidfor is a top museum for contemporary art. This is where the popular Flyover Iceland immersive indoor experience is; similar to Disney’s Soarin’, this ride and multi-sensory experience allows you to view remote parts of the ethereal island with the feeling of your feet dangling above. If you’re hungry for more ice-cream, a local all weather favorite is Valdís, which has two locations in town. Try the gray salted Turkish pepper salted licorice flavor. For a proper meal head to Grandi Mathöll, a street-food hall of eight vendors using fresh Icelandic produce to deliver an array of great dishes from Italian to fish and chips. One of the best items you can find there is the certified Icelandic lamb burger.
Here you’ll have to hop on a bus or taxi. While the Blue Lagoon is Iceland’s most famous geothermal outdoor spa, it’s about an hour outside of town. Sky Lagoon is a day spa just minutes from Reykjavik’s city center and has Atlantic ocean vistas. You will arrive to an authentic turf house exterior and once inside you’re immersed in a seven-step ritual to cleanse and relax in a large and winding outdoor hot spring with a built-in bar. There is a cozy yet luxurious restaurant, Smakk Bar, for after bathing, serving tasting menus (try the local smoked salmon), teas, cocktails and desserts. After a long flight, and maybe before another, this is a must.
Alyssa Pinsker is an award-winning travel writer and writing and publishing coach based in Boulder, Colorado. She has visited 45 countries so far and lived in five. Follow her at @girlgoneglobal or visit alyssapinsker.com.